President Trump's address to skeptical world leaders today could celebrate his isolating decisions on the global stage related to climate change and trade issues in a message tailored for conservative voters six weeks before crucial midterm elections.
His speech at the United Nations comes amid an escalating trade war with China and conflicts with traditional U.S. allies, ranging from Canada to the European Union, on issues like Iranian denuclearization and Trump's decision to quit the Paris Agreement.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters yesterday in a preview of Trump's visit to the annual U.N. General Assembly gathering that he considers the deals he has shunned to be among his most important foreign policy achievements.
"And all of that is to say that the United States is determined to obviously be involved in multilateral organizations where we see it, but not in the way that they're mandated on what the United States does or that infringes on the American people," said Haley, echoing Trump's assertion that the Paris Agreement co-opted America's right to use energy.
Trump will also take his turn at leading the U.N. Security Council later this week. The agenda for Trump's turn as chairman of the council has raised the hackles of European allies. Haley said Trump will focus on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation. Trump himself Tweeted on Friday, "I will chair the United Nations Security Council meeting on Iran next week!"
Those issues play well among conservative American voters.
But France, the United Kingdom and other allies have pressed for a broader focus that does less to highlight the divisions among traditional allies. They also fear being browbeaten about their continued adherence to the Iranian nuclear deal and resulting economic ties related to energy investment.
The Security Council meeting could even turn into a standoff between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who might be allowed to speak.
Trump has also declined to hold a one-on-one meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, even though the United States and Canada are locked in high-stakes negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement. A conclusion to the trade deal must occur by Friday if it's to include Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is on the way out.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton dismissed questions yesterday about Trump's omission of Trudeau in a schedule that includes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. There have been "a lot of requests" for bilateral talks, Bolton said.
"He speaks with Prime Minister Trudeau by phone all the time," he added.
Stewart Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump and his team are playing to a domestic base reassured by his tough words, and not to the 120 or so foreign leaders assembled in front of him in U.N. headquarters.
Patrick predicted a defiant tone laced with rhetoric about how America will no longer be taken advantage of by free-riding allies and trading partners.
"From an international perspective, I think that global observers have heard the 'America first' shtick for a while now, and it's not making much progress up in New York or around the world," Patrick said.
Trump is unlikely to appeal to the United Nations' founding principles of international peace and stability, which in 2015 were extended to include the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. Neither is likely to come up, except as something to be rejected.
"There's a lot of despondency among countries that are concerned about climate change, who see it as one of the great existential threats facing humanity," said Patrick.
In some ways, that despondency has deepened even since last year's General Assembly meeting, which happened just months after Trump derided the Paris Agreement as a bad deal that was intentionally constructed to put the United States at a competitive disadvantage.
A year ago, there was still talk of reworking the climate agreement to allow for a U.S. return. That idea has receded. George David Banks, a White House adviser at the time, held a meeting with top negotiators to Paris in a hotel during U.N. Week, and there was speculation that he would lay out conditions for re-entry.
Now, Banks no longer works for the Trump administration, and his successor, Wells Griffith, isn't believed to be attending the U.N. meetings this week.
Paris is expected to figure prominently in speeches by other heads of state, ranging from U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to Palau President Thomas Remengesau. The Marshall Islands used this year's General Assembly and the Climate Week events that occur on its sidelines to unveil plans to become carbon neutral by 2050. Meanwhile, government officials from Fiji and Poland are working behind the scenes to resolve differences over Paris Agreement implementation guidelines ahead of a December deadline.
Small islands and some European countries say the Security Council should tackle instability and dislocation linked to climate change even though negotiations over emissions reside elsewhere. The United States is seen as an impediment under Trump.
"The Security Council is no substitute for the Paris accord and climate diplomacy, but it does need to start thinking seriously about how climate change affects the issues where it does have lead responsibility: peacekeeping, human security, refugees," said Ken Conca, a professor of international relations at American University. "There are countries on the council that understand this. But the politics is tricky, and it requires careful, coalition-building diplomacy, which we are not seeing from the U.S."
After Trump announced a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, supporters of the pact found cold comfort in U.S. isolation. No other nation followed Trump's cue and quit. But a year later, some cracks are showing.
Australia has abandoned its Paris targets, and Canada, which greens have always said could be doing more to sideline fossil fuels, is at risk of following suit if Conservatives replace the Trudeau government next year. Some Brazilian leaders have floated the idea of leaving the Paris accord.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is often touted as a climate champion against the backdrop of Trump's decision. He not only kept his nation in the Paris Agreement but also brought online a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions.
It's a reputation China burnished by hosting a high-profile pavilion at a recent climate summit in San Francisco. China's chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, co-chaired the summit.
But some say Xi, who will skip this year's U.N. gathering, has received climate accolades that he doesn't deserve. There's evidence that China's formidable coal fleet is expanding faster than previously believed.
Paul Bledsoe, a lecturer at American University and former Clinton White House climate adviser, said China is benefiting from the absence of a powerful climate advocate in the White House.
"Without an aggressive global leader like President Obama, everybody's backsliding, including China," Bledsoe said. "Other issues, like immigration, trade policy, are getting international attention that had been expended on climate. And I think that China's one of those that is trying to take advantage of it."
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